Should the United States reduce its nuclear warheads to 300 as is being proposed by advocates of Global Zero (the campaign to eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide)? Advocates of that number contend it would be sufficient to drop three bombs on each of fifty Russian and Chinese cities. Sounds reasonable, write the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
No. Not to us. It is, in fact, a terrible and dangerous idea. Such a reduction in the US stockpile would not only encourage the spread of nuclear weapons, but also make every crisis a possible nuclear Armageddon and even eventually cripple the US ability to maintain a credible, effective, stable and secure nuclear deterrent. In short, lowering our nuclear deterrent is no casual endeavor.
How much is enough has been a long-standing question facing US military planners. The development in the late 1960s of the ability to put many warheads on one missile increased our deployed arsenal from a few thousand warheads to over 12,000 weapons. This deterrent was to be deployed from three legs -- missiles from sea, land and air, known as a "Triad," that has kept the peace for more than half a century.
The decision to limit our nuclear forces started with the Nixon-era Strategic Arms Limitation Talks [SALT] nuclear weapons treaty with the former Soviet Union. Although the SALT treaty put a partial cap on the number of missiles each side could build, it did allow the enormous expansion of warheads on each of those missiles.
President Reagan, however, and then President George H. W. Bush, reversed this policy dramatically. One initiated, then the other continued, discussions with the USSR to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. Prior to Reagan, the Soviet Union was building a vastly increasing nuclear arsenal. There was also a serious imbalance, referred to as the "window of vulnerability": Moscow appeared to be seeking a first-strike, pre-emptive capability to destroy quickly -- using their nuclear weapons in a sudden, massive strike -- most US nuclear weapons before they could ever be used in retaliation.
Cuts in the START treaties were eventually agreed to between Washington and Moscow; they involved reducing American- and Russian-deployed, "out-in-the-field" weapons to 6000 under START I -- a 50% reduction from the 12,000 weapons Reagan inherited. Then, under the George W. Bush administration, a decade after the end of the Cold War, the Moscow Treaty, again between the US and Russia, reduced deployed nuclear warheads even further to 2,100 -- a dramatic 65% cut. The Obama administration secured passage of yet another agreement with Russia, called "New START," which was agreed to by the US Senate in December 2010, and which further reduced our planned deployed nuclear arsenal to 1,550 warheads -- an additional cut of almost 30% -- to be achieved no later than 2017.
So, the reasoning goes by some, why not simply cut even further? After all, how many of these awful weapons do we need? We went from 12,000 to 1,550 warheads, so why not simply keep on going? What is "enough" should be the number needed to guarantee nuclear weapons are never used against the United States. Period. One NATO expert suggests the US should keep a nuclear force equal to all the nuclear weapons our adversaries have plus one. The biggest factor, however, involves nuclear stability. Let me explain.
Let us assume we are now going to reduce our arsenal to 300 warheads. How should we deploy what we have? Under the 2010 New START Treaty between the US and Russia, we are allowed to have up to 420 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), each with one warhead, spread out in 450 underground silos, in 5 states. We are allowed to have 12 submarines, each with 24 missiles but which will be reduced to 20 to comply with the treaty -- each missile with probably four warheads.
We have B2 and B52 bombers; up to 60 can be nuclear-armed. These are able to carry gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles anywhere, up to 12-18 per plane. Under New START, no matter how many weapons they carry, each bomber counts as "one warhead" toward the treaty limits.
Although bombers count as only one warhead under New START, submarines and ICBM warheads count as the number actually deployed. So under New START, we will have 420 ICBM warheads on 420 missiles, and roughly 80 warheads per 12 submarines -- each with 20 missiles -- plus 60 bombers, which count as 60 warheads. This gets you roughly to somewhat fewer than the New START allowed: 1,550 strategic deployed nuclear warheads.
These are ready for use should the President so order. But we also have stored weapons (spares), in case something goes wrong with one of the various warhead types (we find out they might not work). We also have short-range tactical, battlefield nuclear warheads, largely in Europe. These categories both come to roughly 3,500 warheads. They are not included in the New START ceiling of 1,550.
How then would one logically reduce the arsenal to 300 warheads? (To be fair, there are reports from the media that warhead levels of 600-700, 1000-1,100, and the status quo are also being examined.)
Let's do the math:
Where and how would you base 300 warheads? Let us say we keep 100 in reserve, 50 as tactical weapons and 150 as deployed strategic warheads. Given such a very low level of deployed weapons, it would be prohibitively expensive, on a cost-per-unit basis, to keep all the legs of our Triad. If they all were deployed on submarines, each with 20 missiles and two warheads, that comes to four submarines. If all were deployed on land, that comes to 150 missiles in silos. But what if there were a technical problem with one or another of the forces, and we found out it did not work? That would be an unacceptably big oops. But let us assume, as one possible scenario, that we took this risk and deployed all 150 warheads on submarines.
First, at any one time, only a portion of the submarines are at sea, where they must be, to cover the targets necessary for deterrence. Second, we have to keep some warheads in reserve for insurance; and third, what if you have to build back up? The Minuteman III missile can add two warheads for a total of three-per-missile, but it takes time -- many months -- to add more warheads. The submarine-based missile can hold up to eight warheads, and they can be uploaded or added over time as well. Under any reductions, these options would be seriously curtailed.
Here we get to the nub of the problem. Most comments about the new reductions concentrate solely on the number of warheads. But a key part of the nuclear posture of the US is not discussed: When we went from 2,200 to 1,550 warheads under the Moscow Treaty, we kept roughly the same number of platforms — silos, submarines, and bombers.
When we reduced for START the number of warheads from 6,000 to 2,200, we eliminated only 50 ICBM silos and two submarines, keeping 14 submarines;, nearly 100 bombers on three bomber bases and 500 Minuteman III missile silos. In short, under both START and Moscow, we kept enough ICBMs (420-500) and bombers (60-100) so our submarines (14) could survive, and we kept enough submarines and bombers so our ICBMs could survive.
This resulted in our "platforms" -- from which missiles could be launched -- remaining close to 500 targets which an adversary would have to face in a crisis. These are the military targets an adversary would have to strike to be able to wipe out our ability to respond with nuclear firepower. We therefore kept them above 450 even during day-to-day peacetime, and even as we reduced warheads from 6,000 to 1550.
In any crisis, a critical concern is that the other guy will get you before you get him. These nuclear armed missiles can reach their targets in 30 minutes or less. But for an adversary to get us first, he would have to use two nuclear warheads for every one of our ICBM silos in order to be relatively confident that he had destroyed the silos. But to eliminate our retaliatory capability, he would also have to target not only hundreds of hardened and geographically dispersed silos, but simultaneously our submarines at sea, and our three bomber bases and two submarine ports, as well.
As our satellites can see rockets launched from both sea and land, the thirty-minute flight time of such missiles -- if our platforms are sufficiently dispersed -- precludes a sneak, or sudden attack, such as a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Should an attacker come at us with close to a thousand warheads, the number necessary to be confident to take out all our nuclear forces as they sit on their bases, an imminent attack would be obvious. Were the Russians, for example, to launch that many missiles simultaneously at us, they would have to put their own forces on alert, put submarines, now usually in port, to sea, and flush, or get ready,their mobile ICBMs, all of which we would be able to see from our satellites.
This "warning" which could take a matter of days would allow us to respond prudently, putting our forces on higher alert if need be, thereby making any such pre-emptive strike by adversaries out of the question. They would then have two choices: use everything -- all or most of their nuclear weapons -- in a single strike and end up with nothing but burnt rubble for a country as we struck back, or else leave their nuclear guns in their nuclear holsters. In the words of one of the top American nuclear gurus, the late Paul Nitze, we want the Russian planners to say, after looking at all the computer simulations and data, "Not today, comrade."
The critical nature is "crisis stability": it cannot be forgotten in planning our nuclear deterrent forces. You have to deploy what are termed "survivable forces," sufficient to withstand even the first use of nuclear weapons, and to be able to retaliate to take out everything else the adversaries have left, especially their ability to wage war, to deny them a sanctuary from which to fire missiles at us. Blowing up their cities does not stop their ability either to wage war or launch more nuclear armed rockets at America and its allies.
It is also crucial to have significant barriers to the early or prompt use of nuclear weapons in a crisis. This barrier, more than any single factor, is the deployment of US forces in different modes – land, sea, air – sufficiently spread out to offer extremely unattractive targets. Put your eggs in a great many baskets and make sure the baskets are spread out as widely as possible. The "stability" guaranteed by such planning will help keep the peace.
But not so with very low numbers. Most importantly of all, the inability to maintain deterrence is the single greatest weakness of forces with very low numbers. The proponents of low-numbers apparently consider only the warheads needed to blow up the adversaries' cities. Some experts such as Sidney Drell, formerly of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, assume that if we can destroy a dozen or so cities of our adversaries, that would be enough to deter any sane person.
Sanity, however, is not necessarily going to prevail, or leaders would never start the wars they end up losing -- such as Japan and Germany in WW II, and North Korea in 1950. If deterrence fails, as it often does, our nuclear deterrent must be able to prevent the use of nuclear weapons against the United States even if war has broken out only where conventional, or non-nuclear weapons, are being used.
Should we be even considering future reductions? A number of senior Russians have said they will accept no fewer than 1,000 deployed strategic weapons on their side. But they have refused to include tactical and stockpiled weapons in that total. Russia may have 5,000 tactical weapons and a stockpile of 2,000-3,000 additional bombs, but those numbers are not exactly transparent, to say the least. On top of such non-information, Russian officials also say they may have to build up their nuclear forces because of new threats: Mr. Putin is already calling for the building 400 new nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
As for China, we have evidence that they are building new mobile nuclear-tipped missiles, as well as a submarine from which to launch nuclear weapons. Richard Fischer, Vice President of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, projects that China is working toward a deployed strategic nuclear arsenal of upward of 600 weapons as part of what Jane's Intelligence states will be a doubling of China's defense budget by 2015.
As senior US military officials acknowledge, we are now the ONLY nuclear-armed state not modernizing our nuclear fleet or platforms. Our new submarine replacement program has been delayed by two years; our new bomber -- whose cruise missile replacement has also been delayed two years -- will not initially be nuclear, and we are in only a planning-and-studying mode to replace the Minuteman but have not yet decided what future land-based strategic deterrent we shall build. On a positive note however, these modernization elements have been preserved in the five-year defense strategy presented to Congress, despite some very significant budget cuts elsewhere.
Even more important, would 150 warheads -- our current notional deterrent -- be sufficient to extend our nuclear deterrent over our 31 allies -- including NATO, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan that we now protect -- or for their own national security, would they feel obligated to scramble to deploy their own nuclear deterrent? Would going to 300 total warheads encourage others bad actors -- current and potential future adversaries collectively to go to 3,000 warheads?
The reason our allies — Germany, South Korea, Japan — do not have nuclear programs is that they believe our deterrent extends to them. But if they see us backing away or diminishing our deterrent, however, they may move toward their own nuclear deterrent. Thus a strong US nuclear deterrent is a great tool for non- proliferation. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but true. Going too low could expand proliferation and also allow other nations – such as China, North Korea and Iran -- to build up to match or exceed us. And of course, countries such as North Korea and Iran, for example, are not exactly known for being either open or forthright about their plans.
Next, as mentioned earlier, a reasonable assumption is that the total of 300 warheads may mean as few as 150 deployed warheads. Let us assume they are all deployed on submarines. Our entire deterrent would rest with as few as 3-4 submarines. Generally, they rotate, with some at sea and some in port. Submarines in port, known as "boomers," can be targeted with, for example, conventional, non-nuclear cruise missiles. One former military commander of our nuclear forces wrote: "In port...a ballistic missile submarine is potentially one of the most destabilizing weapons since it is an extremely lucrative target." What he meant was that an adversary need only use a handful of weapons to take out 80 or more nuclear weapons, each of which is carried on a single US strategic nuclear submarine.
I was told by former Senator John Warner that when he was Secretary of the Navy during the Nixon administration, the above scenario was the one thing that kept him up at night. It was why Reagan and Bush in START eventually proposed that all land-based missiles with multiple warheads be banned — if everyone had single-warhead missiles and a lot of them, trying to be the first to disarm and disarm the other guy could not be done--you do not have enough attacking warheads to take out all of an adversary's weapons -- even on paper. If I had 420 Minuteman silos, for example, and the other guy had 420 silos, each containing one missile with one warhead, I cannot take out all of their silos with an attack — I need at least two warheads per target to be sure of destroying it. Submarines can be destroyed under water with conventional torpedoes, and bomber bases can be eliminated with a few weapons. So a good rule of thumb, if you are reducing warheads, is to keep a lot of platforms.
Years ago, such low numbers as 300 total warheads were considered a far-fetched, even dangerous, idea. President Carter reportedly once announced to an National Security Council meeting if it wouldn't make a lot of sense to put all our nuclear warheads on two submarines and get rid of the rest. It would, said Carter, save a lot of money. His senior advisers stopped the meeting, called on everyone to leave the Situation Room, and said, "Mr. President, do not ever propose such a foolish notion again."
We currently have 14 submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Two are due to be retired soon, and the remaining 12 are scheduled to be replaced over the next 20-30 years. If the US were to lower its deterrent to 300 warheads, the number of submarines carrying them might be reduced to as few as four: two at sea, one in transit, and one in port. On these platforms would rest our entire nuclear deterrent.
Just think of that famous political advertisement, the red phone on the desk, ringing at 3am in the President's office. "Mr. President?" "Yes?" "This is the Chief of Naval Operations. One of our "boomers," a nuclear armed submarine, has not come home." "What do you mean, not come home?"says the President. "It appears," says the CNO, "that our adversaries tracked one successfully." "Who?" says the President asks. "We do not know, Mr. President," the CNO admits.
Game, set, match.